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How to Repair Hard Disk Drive at Home

Updated on July 01, 2016
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Alfred is a long time teacher and computer enthusiast who works with and troubleshoots a wide range of computing devices.

Your precious data inside the hard disk drive is retained within the platters
Your precious data inside the hard disk drive is retained within the platters

As traumatic as data loss can be, it will remain a distant worry until it happens to you. Then as the case usually is, you will entangle yourself in equally traumatic hard disk repair attempts, and coupled with a walk down the repair shop, the truth about your misfortunes will begin to take shape.

It is so humbling to learn that all your precious photos, documents and audiovisual files are probably gone forever!

Amazing as this may be, many of us actually forget the trauma associated with previous data losses and do not implement preemptive measures to address data integrity.

Perhaps an important reminder to reflect is that data is more expensive and precious than the disk drive hardware onto which it is retained.

If however you become a victim of hard disk failure or are concerned about data loss due to the same, you can try a few DIY data loss prevention and recovery at home as explained below.

Five Hard Disk and Data Recovery Repair Strategies at Home

When faced with imminent drive failure, a number of data recovery solutions are available and need to be followed to ensure you get your data back.

1: First Confirm the Hard Disk is Actually Dead

Before making hasty decisions regarding a hard disk gone south, make sure it is actually dead. Quite often a false alarm will be sounded when something else is the matter.

Make use of the following tools to diagnose what actually happened. Then you can begin seeking solutions for hard disk failure.

 Use Hard Disk Sentinel to Assess Hard Disk Health Status

Hard Dist Sentinel is a MUST have utility which alerts you about the health of the disk drive inside your computer.

Hard disk sentinel will give you the correct assessment of your drive and warn you of impending doom. It continuously monitors and displays the health status of the drive in percentage.

Any score below 20% should be a sign that the drive is dying and the data inside it needs to be transferred.

Be worried if the percentage reads 0!

Hard Disk Sentinel is available for Windows and Hiren boot CD.

Hard Disk Sentinel for Windows watches over your disk drive and alerts you when it is time!
Hard Disk Sentinel for Windows watches over your disk drive and alerts you when it is time!

If the disk drive is not accessible because Windows is corrupted, run the Hard Disk Sentinel which is bundled inside the freeware HIREN boot CD.

Download a copy, burn it onto a cd or use a flash drive to create a bootable version of the software.

The  DOS Live version of Hard Disk Sentinel in HIREN CD
The DOS Live version of Hard Disk Sentinel in HIREN CD

 Use Disk Management

Windows inbuilt disk management tool will show you hidden partitions just in case a secondary hard disk or other partition goes missing. It could be a missing drive letter that is driving you into a frenzy i.e (C:) for Windows local drive.

To use Disk Management tool, type compmgmt.msc in Run and click Disk Management in the left pane. Any disk or partition that is missing a drive letter will show up, and you only have to right click it for Properties and then allot it an alphabetical letter.

Computer  Management tool
Computer Management tool

 Use SMART Status of the Disk Drive to Assess its Health

Modern computers ship with SMART feature enabled within the BIOS, and Windows 8 operating system actually warns about a failing hard disk drive.

If SMART is not enabled in the CMOS setup, make sure it is and see if you receive warnings about hard disk health.


 Assess the Status of the Data Cable

If software tools fail to see the disk drive, or it is on and off intermittently, maybe it is DIY time to make visual assessment of the disk drive and related parts inside the computer.

Make sure all data and power cables connect well to the disk drive and motherboard connectors. Assess both PATA and SATA cables depending on the drive type.

This especially so if the computer no longer sees the drive. Hard disks can develop erratic behavior when data or power cables attached to them are failing or the contacts on the board or the drives are blocked and contaminated by dust and corrosion.

The next step is to clean the contacts and corroded points on the circuit board and the cables. Further still, try other data and power cables and see if they make any difference.

Assess the state of IDE and SATA data cables, depending on what is installed in your computer
Assess the state of IDE and SATA data cables, depending on what is installed in your computer

 Connect Hard Disk as Secondary Drive

If dirt and cabling are not the issue, pull out the hard disk and connect it as secondary disk or external disk onto the desktop or laptop.

If however, the external disk is the one you are troubleshooting, make sure to swap the USB cables just in case. Some USB cables don’t usually supply voltage enough to power up the drive.

Most external hard disks ship with Y USB cables and they require that both are plugged in. For better results when using the desktop computer, always plug the cables into the USB ports located at the rear of the system unit.

Connect hard disk as external
Connect hard disk as external

2: Cool the Hard Disk in the Freezer!

If confirmed that the hard disk is actually the culprit, take precautions not to power it up for long. Keep it cool in order to allow you transfer the data to another drive.

Dying mechanical drives get even weaker if subjected to rigorous testing. The hotter a dying hard disk gets, the further it deteriorates.

Keep it cool until you have your data transferred elsewhere. Keeping cool may as well involve storing it in the freezer!

Make sure to wrap it carefully inside a polythene bag before sticking it in the freezer. Overnight freezing should prep it for software recovery in the morning.

If direct data transfer to another disk drive is not yielding immediate results, don't try too hard by repeatedly turning it on and off. The further you stress this annoying little thing, the more you are ruining it.

In the event that the above steps have failed, you may now want to resort to data recovery using specialised software utilities. Software recovery tools are better at this time of the crisis.

3: Attempt Data Recovery Using iCare

Make sure the disk drive is cool enough before running the recovery software of your choice. I use iCare Data Recovery Software and it has bailed me out countless times.

Recovery software will take hours if your hard disk capacity is high and if its health status is very bad. You may want to do it in a cool environment and preferably overnight.

Other popular recovery software include, spinrite, recuva and Kroll Ontrack. Go for whatever serves you best.

iCare Data Recovery Software
iCare Data Recovery Software

4: Open Hard Disk Drive Internals

If however software recovery fails to do you justice you may want to try risky mission that involves opening up the hard disk.

Manual hard disk repair should be the last resort in data recovery. It is a point of no return and one you undertake knowing too well you may lose the drive and data forever.

Only do it when you don’t mind losing the data in the drive and when you know exactly what you are doing!

Manual hard disk repair usually involve swapping two common components:

  • The printed circuit board (PCB)
  • The platter assembly

Have you ever tried fixing a dead hard disk at home?

See results

If so, were you successful?

See results

 Swap the Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

This procedure is only useful if you have confirmed that the circuit board is the problem and not the mechanics inside the drive.

Repair of PCB basically means swapping the dead PCB on the failed hard disk with another one from a working hard disk.

The details, including the BIOS firmware in the PCBs to be swapped must be similar to the original PCB!

The main symptom of a dead PCB is a totally silent hard disk. It is possible that power is not being transmitted through the board because of broken points or other reasons.

For broken points try to reflow them and see if the drive gets back to life.

Sometimes a blown transient voltage suppression (tvs) diode is the reason for drive breakdown. If testing proves so, simply unsolder it and reconnect the drive to the computer. Remember the diode is meant to regulate voltage to the drive and without it you are operating like a pirate in the seas!

PCB circuit board
PCB circuit board

There is a catch though when swapping PCB between drives.

Whereas swapping may happen without a hitch in older IDE disk drives, newer SATA models pose a challenge.

Newer PCBs contain unique Identifiers (ID) built into ROM chips, and worse still some have the IDs built into the main controller chip. (see illustration above)

The chips from the dead board (assuming they are not dead too) need to be transferred to the new PCB.

Whereas the ROM chips can be replaced and swapped between the PCB boards without much of a hustle (if you own a hot-air gun), swapping the controller chip needs more professional hand.

 Swap the Hard Disk Platters

Swapping hard disk platters is even more cumbersome and risky. It would better be done by professionals, but now that you have opted to do it yourself, so be it.

Rules of thumb:

  • Change drive platters in a super clean room!
  • Do not touch the inside of the platters!
  • Do not touch the read/write heads!
  • No spec of dirt should land on the platters!
  • Replace everything as exactly and precisely as you found them!

As much as the PCB and platters are the usual suspects in drive failures, other components may as well have failed. They include the motor and the read/write head.

If you fail to recover data by opening the disk drive, then that is it. No room for data recovery should be open for you.

Hard disk drive platters
Hard disk drive platters

5: Consult Data Recovery Specialists

Data recovery specialists should always be your first choice when data failure is knocking at the door. Call one or visit one as soon as hard disk trouble starts, and you have failed to transfer data from it, or recovery software tools have also failed.

Don’t wait until it is too late to visit one, and neither should you visit one after you have scattered the drive platters in your super clean room.

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